A Winnipeg professional soccer player swaps his cleats for a rifle to fight on the front lines for the country he was born in.
Despite not having a Ukrainian passport, Svyatik Artemenko enlisted in the Ukrainian Armed Forces on Friday – a day after Russia invaded Ukraine. He attempted to register in the western Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi on Thursday but was turned away before being admitted the next day.
In an Instagram video call from the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on Saturday afternoon, Artemenko said he waited in line for over two hours on Friday to report.
He was born in Odessa before his family immigrated to Canada when he was two years old, but has since returned to the city several times.
“I honestly expected to feel a sense of fear in the crowd, like silence… but that was absolutely not the case,” Artemenko said of the atmosphere among those waiting to report.
“Everyone went there. They were willing to put their lives on the line and there was absolutely no sense of fear.”
The 22-year-old arrived in Ukraine on January 29 and was in Khmelnytskyi for a trial with FC Podylla, a second-tier professional football club in Ukraine. His test was successful and he signed a contract with the club the day before the Russian military attacked Ukraine.
Artemenko was living and playing football in Guelph, Ontario when someone affiliated with FC Podylla saw him play last fall and offered the former Valor FC goalkeeper a trial.
He had two championships under his belt in November.
Artemenko led Guelph United FC, a semi-professional men’s soccer club, to win the Ontario League1 title and stopped the University of Guelph Gryphons men’s soccer team to an unbeaten Ontario University Athletics regular season and the Conference title.
No second thoughts of escape
However, Artemenko’s football career has been put on hold for the time being.
“I came here for football, but football is canceled because of the war, so I want to come back to the football field here and the only way to do that is to end the war,” Artemenko said.
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He traveled from Khmelnytskyi to Odessa on Saturday and said there was a stark contrast in mood between the two cities.
There was a bomb attack outside Khmelnytskyi and military troops were patrolling the city while martial law was enforced, he said, so no one is allowed outside after 10pm. But in Odessa, which is on the Black Sea, Artemenko says the situation is more serious, with shootings and bombings happening more regularly.
“You just have to get used to it and adapt to it,” he said.
Artemenko told family and friends about his decision and communicated regularly with them through a handful of social media channels.
This communication is likely to be very sporadic as Russian intelligence begins tracking cell phones in Ukraine.
Artemenko says his friends are more concerned because they are not used to seeing a conflict zone or having a friend in one.
His family asked if he was 100 percent sure of his decision or if he should try to return to Canada.
“It wasn’t even a thought in my head to leave the country or flee,” Artemenko said. “My first thought always stayed with me to enlist and go to war here.”
He said everything was in a hurry and that more soldiers were needed in Ukraine, even though the country required all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 to stay and fight the Russians.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine invites foreigners to join the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine 🇺🇦 https://t.co/JVOjKuuMXW
Many new Ukrainian military troops missed out on training, but Artemenko says he’s fortunate to already have some military training. Between the ages of 16 and 18 he was a combat engineer with the Canadian Reserve Force in Winnipeg.
Artemenko met face-to-face with a member of his extended family on Saturday after they both signed up to fight in the same battalion, but it wasn’t an emotional meeting.
“Right now there isn’t much time for emotions,” he said. “All your emotions must be there on the front line to protect your country.”
Ex-coach calls Artemenko ‘very patriotic’
That devout patriotism is a trait that one of his former football coaches always saw in Artemenko.
Rob Gale, the former head coach and general manager of Valor FC, has known Artemenko for almost a decade as he rose through the ranks of provincial football – including when he represented Manitoba at the 2017 Canadian Summer Games in Winnipeg before earning a place with the Canadian Premier snagged League Club in its inaugural campaign in 2019.
Artemenko also saw pre-season action with Valor during the 2020 and 2021 campaigns.
“He’s a fearless character and I hope and pray that that character that he has about him will help him in the current situation that he’s obviously in,” Gale said.
“I remember he was involved in a couple of skirmishes defending Ukraine in his youth, actually with some comments in a training session. He is extremely patriotic. He wears his heart on his sleeve, on and off the pitch.”
Gale isn’t surprised by Artemenko’s decision, but selfishly wishes he were back home, away from the fighting.
“He’s always been the guy to stand up for what he believes in and fight for his countrymen like he would for his teammates in the sport,” Gale added.
He prays that Artemenko stays safe and doesn’t witness too many atrocities.
Gale hopes his former goalkeeper will “keep living his dream” of playing football after the conflict ends.
Artemenko says he is scared, and he also believes that by fighting he is doing his duty to Ukraine.
“Deep down there is always the fear of losing my life, and obviously it’s a war, so it’s normal to be a little scared,” Artemenko said.
“But the sense of pride and responsibility trumps the sense of fear.”